Are Your Friends Bad For Your Health?

4 ways to handle toxic behaviors and protect your wellbeing

By Linda Melone
Originally Posted On August 21, 2014

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Hanging out with friends does a person good. But if you're a woman and your female friends make you feel bad, the positive benefits of the friendship can be diminished. In fact, bad friends can be harmful to your health.

That's according to a new study. An analysis of data from 1,502 healthy adults over age 50 found that negative social interactions were linked to a 38 percent increase in developing high blood pressure for women. The multiyear research from Carnegie Mellon University found that women between 51 and 64 were more affected than older women. Surprisingly, this same effect was not seen in men.

Researchers were not completely surprised by the results. "Women are more affected and pay more attention to the quality of their relationships than men," says Rodlescia Sneed, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology involved in the study. "Women's relationships are more about sharing; men tend to have less intimacy."
 
Prior studies done with arguing couples show increases in blood pressure in the short term, but this study found negative relationships could also have long-term physical effects, Sneed says.
 
Having Friends Should Be Fun
 
When you share a deeper level of intimacy, conflict exacts a far greater toll, says Irene S. Levine, professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, producer of www.TheFriendshipBlog.com and a Next Avenue contributor. "It’s hard to let go of the person who knows all your secrets," notes Levine.
 
And while no relationship is ever perfect, friendships are voluntary relationships that add to the pleasure and enjoyment of our lives, says Levine. "If a friendship is consistently draining and there is no way to resolve the conflict or mismatch, it’s time to move on to more satisfying relationships," she adds.

"Healthy relationships at 50, or any age, should include mutual caring and respect, responsibility and good communication," says Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty.

Signs of a toxic relationship include: being demanding, turning every discussion into an argument, threatening the end of the friendship, using tears, rage and/or badgering and gossiping about you behind your back.
 
How To Fix A Friendship
 
Handling toxic relationships isn't easy and takes a little know-how, says Tessina. She has four suggestions:
 
1. Focus on the positive. First, tell your friend about the things you like that she does. She'll then be more likely to hear when you say you don't like something, says Tessina.
 
2. Use silence. “If you don't like what she's doing or saying, don't respond. She'll get the message without a word,” Tessina says.
 
3. Set boundaries and limits. If your friend is habitually late, for example, let her know when the timing is important (you don't want to miss the first five minutes of a movie) and when time is not an issue. In cases where she needs to be on time, tell her if she's not ready by X time you'll leave without her.

"It's amazing how well that works," says Tessina. "Although, don't be too strict about it if she's late only on occasion or has a good reason."
 
4. Try a time out. Become distant and polite when she behaves badly. No joking around or interacting, says Tessina.

"Eventually, she may ask you what's wrong, and at that point you have an opportunity to tell her what the problem behavior is and why you don't like it. Learning to put obnoxious friends in time outs right at the beginning of unpleasant behavior can make it unnecessary to use tougher tactics at all," adds Tessina.

The Green-Eyed Monster
 
Jealousy often rears its ugly head in a friendship and is particularly toxic. "Most jealousy arises when someone feels insecure or threatened — that someone else (like you) will get the attention she wants," says Tessina.
 
People who react with jealousy are often in a lot of emotional pain about their own lives. "Be as understanding as you can and listen to your friend's feelings, but don't let her struggles ruin your good feelings about yourself," says Tessina. Publicly thanking her for the nice things she's done and giving her special time with you alone may help.
 
Finally, don't be afraid to talk to friends about what friendship means to you. Is it acceptable to cancel a date with a girlfriend (or her with you) because you get a better offer from a man? Because of family illness or problems? How much loyalty do you expect in the friendship, and what does that mean?
 
If you can't work on the problem, at least limit the time you spend with people who make you feel bad, says Sneed. "Avoid taking on other peoples' problems, which women tend to do," she notes.

Next Avenue contributor Linda Melone is a California-based freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness for women over 50.